In the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to meet Muhammad Ali during a book signing at a Barnes & Noble, where I worked at for about a year and a half. It was a remarkable afternoon where I played the role of the champ's body man—making sure no one got too pushy or lingered too long. I was there to keep the line moving, which I did just fine, but for myself, I was there to be next to “The Greatest.”
After the signing ended, Ali stuck around for photo ops with the staff. When it was my turn, Ali looked at me and my shaven to the bone dome and said, “You look like Earnie Shavers,” before placing his massive mitt on the top of my skull. I probably levitated a bit at that moment.
If only in jest, Muhammad Ali compared me to the greatest heavyweight boxer never to win a title belt. In fact, over an extraordinary career that began in 1969 and ended in 1995 (touching four different decades), Shavers only got two title shots—losing to Ali by unanimous decision in a fifteen-round tilt in September of '77 and going down by TKO in the 11th to Larry Holmes in September of '79.
Shavers' calling card was pure punching power. He could hurt you with both hands and with any punch. In those two title fights, he hurt Ali badly in the 2nd and floored Holmes in the 7th. Shavers' power was legendary. When George Foreman was asked about Shavers in an interview, he replied, “I never fought Earnie Shavers,” and then he added, “Thank goodness.”
It's long been forgotten now, but Shavers was an early contender to play Clubber Lang in Rocky III. While he didn't get the role because Stallone and company thought Shavers' voice was too high, Sly did spar with Shavers. Realizing that Shavers was taking it easy on him, Stallone called Shavers out, saying, “C'mon Earnie, show me something real.” Earnie obliged with a shot to the liver that immediately ended the session, disabling Stallone so badly that he thought he was going to die. Luckily for Sly, he survived that body shot, even if he had to grip the porcelain god and vomit into it after taking one hard blow from the vaunted right hand of Earnie Shavers.
It should be noted that Shavers was a solid boxer too. He once injured his right hand against Henry Clark and then found a way to win the bout by almost exclusively using nothing other than his jab.
Over his 26-year career, Shavers compiled an astonishing record of 74-14-1. Think of that: in the most physically punishing division in the sport, Shavers fought a whopping 89 times. For comparison, Oleksandr Usyk has fought twenty times and is 35 years old. Fighters of Shavers' era were made of sterner stuff. Hell, Shavers fought a stupefying 17 times in 1971 alone.
Of his 74 wins, an amazing 68 ended by knockout. Of those 68 KOs, 41 of them occurred in either the first or second round—a mind-boggling statistic. Shavers holds victories over former champions Vincente Rondon, Ken Norton, and Jimmy Ellis. Unfortunately, none of those victories came when a member of that trio owned a title belt.
Due to his extraordinary punching power, Shavers got, shall we say, “avoided” over much of his career. That, along with a somewhat suspect chin (that played a part in those 14 losses), probably kept Shavers from fighting for a world title more often.
And, of course, he fought at a time when the division had giants walking the earth. Ali, Liston, Foreman, Frazier, and Holmes made up the top tier during Shavers' long run through the sport, but even the second tier of competition was loaded back then. The aforementioned Norton, and Ellis, along with fighters like Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner, George Chuvalo, Ernie Terrell, and Oscar Bonavena, all fought during this almost mythical era. To win the heavyweight title back then, you had to fight through a gauntlet of first-class contenders just to get a shot. As great as Shavers was, the fact that he only got two title shots tells you everything you need to know about what a magical period for heavyweight boxing that stretch of time was.
It is exceedingly difficult for me to imagine any other era of heavyweight boxing where Shavers wouldn't have held a world title belt at some point—even during the last golden age of the heavyweights, which included Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, and Mike Tyson. Lewis and Bowe would have probably been the toughest of that foursome for Shavers, just due to their size. But Lewis was susceptible to surprise knockouts (hello Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman), Bowe was once floored by Holyfield, Evander himself was open to taking punishment, and Mike Tyson had a hard time with anyone he could not intimidate.
Shavers might not have been the favorite against any member of that fearsome foursome (although I'm almost certain he would have beaten Tyson), but no one would have called you a fool if you placed your money on Shavers were it possible for any of those contests to have taken place.
That, along with Bowe's early fade and Tyson's prison sentence, would have created other opportunities for Shavers to lift a title belt over his head. Alas, that little adventure in thought is nothing more than that. Shavers fought when he did, and despite a high level of talent and hands as heavy as anvils, Shavers never broke through. That simple truth has relegated Shavers to the level of fascinating footnote or folk hero instead of a champion.
At any other point in boxing history, that would not have been the case. Shavers would have tasted championship glory and likely been a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was simply born at the wrong time.
Earnie Shavers died yesterday. He was 78 years old.